Design Classics to Invest in—and Why It’s a Bad Idea to Buy Fakes
When decorating a house, it’s easy to get sucked in by knockoffs. After all, they’re rampant in the marketplace—even at big-name stores you wouldn’t expect—and tend to cost hundreds and even thousands less than the originals. Besides losing out on integrity and in most cases, quality, buying fakes compromises the design industry in general—and Be Original Americas, an association of design businesses, institutions, and organizations is actively working now to protect the original work of the design community. In fact, companies like Herman Miller, Flos, Vitra, and more have joined the ranks in the hopes of educating consumers on the perils of copycat design. Below we ask Sam Grawe, President of Be Original Americas and Global Brand Director for Herman Miller, and Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, about what makes good design, why it can be so expensive, and what Be Original Americas is doing to foster creativity in the future. Plus, we’ve put together a panel of design heavyweights on the pieces they deem worthy of investing in—or at least dreaming of.
A Q&A with Sam Grawe & Caroline Baumann
What are we missing out on when we buy knockoffs?
SG: The real story. Quality. Intent. Decency.
There must be many examples of great works of design that imitate aspects of other classics. When does a friendly quotation or reference within the design industry cross the line into the copycat realm?
SG: There is indeed a line somewhere between reference point and imitation. To some extent we would all be kidding ourselves if we didn’t believe that everything that’s come before leads us to now. Konstantin Grcic curated an exhibition of his work entitled Panorama at the Vitra Design Museum in 2014 that had a wonderful portion dedicated to showing the line between his works and those of other designers or media. It was very honest.
Sometimes a quote from a familiar source intentionally gives a piece of design a kind of wink or sly humor—a sort of inside joke. For instance, Paul Cocksedge recently designed a wall-mounting shelving system for Moooi called Direttorre Shelves that is a clever play on Ettore Sottsass’ iconic Carlton bookcase. Done well, this can be meaningful—and the knowledge of the antecedent is tacitly implied. Pure copyists prey on the fact that people might not understand or care about the original, or imply that they are no different from the original. To me, this is the line.
What designers/companies now are making the classics of the future?
CB: Right now when you pay a visit to Cooper Hewitt and see our extraordinary Design Triennial exhibition, you will be confronted with exceptional contemporary design from all four corners of the globe. Many of these emerging designers are making design objects that will be celebrated for years to come, from Brunno Jahara who transforms abandoned newspapers into delicate light fixtures, and turns aluminum into colorful vases, lamps, and bowls to Max Lamb who explores the process of furniture making by using raw materials and experimental techniques, resulting in a rough and tactile quality. 3-D printing technology powers many innovations happening in the field today, including designer Olivier van Herpt’s ceramic vessels, which blur the line between the handmade and the machine-made to showcase the craft of digital manufacturing, and Neri Oxman’s groundbreaking 3-D-printed GLASS series.
Mobile Chandelier by Michael Anastassiades featured in the Design Triennial exhibition.
SG: My opinion may be subjective because Herman Miller just debuted some new work with him in Milan this year, but I believe Michael Anastassiades has created a handful of future classics—including his lighting for Flos. Designers that speak quietly and confidently through their work are those I admire most, and those I believe will continue to be most relevant—Jasper Morrison, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Sam Hecht and Kim Colin, Naoto Fukasawa.
What does being a member of Be Original Americas entail?
SG: Beyond the requisite annual fee, it means being a part of an organization that is at the forefront of supporting design and creativity—and the value creation we believe that original design brings both to our customers and to our organizations. The bulk of our efforts are centered around education and communication for the public, and sharing best practices among members. In the future we will be working more with regulatory officials and legislation to help protect original design better than our current system allows.
In the Be Original Americas manifesto it says that “by purchasing authentic design you are investing in the future of design.” What are some of the ways Be Original Americas, member companies, and Cooper Hewitt are supporting young designers?
CB: Design education has always been integral to our mission at Cooper-Hewitt, from reaching the youngest designers through our four-week summer Design Camp to high school students gaining real-world design experience in our free DesignPrep program. Hundreds of students learn about careers in design each year at our annual Teen Design Fairs held in New York and D.C. We are in the process of expanding our Design in the Classroom program nationwide and recently held our first national student design competition with Target. Asked to design a chair for the museum’s garden, high school students from all over the country submitted the most wonderfully inventive designs. The winner—16-year-old Claire Christianson—will be returning to New York soon to see her chair unveiled in the garden.
SG: Be Original Americas has just launched an amazing fellowship for two college students. It’s a seven week program where they will be exposed to the inner workings of the design industry by spending time within a broad range of our member companies. They will see how an original design comes to life from research and design exploration, to manufacturing, to sales and marketing. We think it’s pretty comprehensive, and hopefully will be elucidating for both the participants and our social network.
For our companies, the future of design is also the future of our business. We are always looking for new opportunities.
Do you think some of the great designers of the past might be shocked by the prices their designs are fetching today, especially when it comes to items that were designed for mass production?
SG: Not especially. The favorite Eames quote is “the best for the most for the least”—meaning the best possible quality, for the most possible people, for the least possible cost. It’s really about an idea of continuous improvement, and delivering the ultimate value of that improvement to the customer. The fact is that if you do the math an Eames Lounge and Ottoman was about $500 depending on options in 1957—which is $4,237 in 2016 dollars. You can buy an Eames Lounge and Ottoman today (during our sale), for $4,194. It was always intended as a luxurious, high-quality product. There are other designs, such as the plastic chair, which were always intended to be manufactured and distributed at a higher volume. If you look at how we make the chairs today, there’s still a high degree of handwork that goes into making the product the best it can be.
How do companies selling original classics reconcile the price they sell these items for with the fact they were originally meant for the masses?
SG: This whole idea that they were always meant for the masses is a falsehood that’s been perpetuated, in my view, somewhat out of context. Designed for mass production is another thing entirely, and more about designing for the industrial design process itself.
The reality is that furniture is not a high margin business (like fashion) and there are costs that may not be apparent to the consumer like development, tooling, materials, manufacturing, distribution, sales, and royalties that have to be accounted for. In the case of Herman Miller, we’re not necessarily manufacturing Eames chairs on the scale of a big box retailer so the ability to reduce prices through volume is limited through that whole chain. But at the end of the day, the consumer does get a high-quality product (with a five-year warranty) that will likely last into your grandchild’s lifetime.
If we’re buying second hand, what are some ways we can research whether the piece we’re interested in is actually an original?
SG: There’s a ton of information available online, of course, but it also takes doing a little bit of digging. Obviously looking for original labels and markings is the first step. If there aren’t any, look at the details and connections—don’t be afraid to turn things upside down. There are a ton of pictures of vintage furnishings on Instagram, so search the hashtag you’re after and make some comparisons.
Today’s Top Designers on the Design Classics they Love
Designer and founder of eponymous design studio, which is especially well known for its lighting.
“The Eames lounge chair and ottoman: I’ve lived with this piece for 20 years, it still feels so contemporary.”
“The buffet of Gerrit Rietveld was born ages ago, while it could have been born ten years ago, or even yesterday. It has the cunning and pride of youth, the grace and wisdom of elders. It will never leave this world, it will never disappoint and rightfully finds its eternal home in my heart.”
Founder and Creative Director of Chilewich.
“Anything by Ted Muehling. He juxtaposes between modern and earthy. He takes a shape from nature and repositions it and fits it in a contemporary context. He has such integrity and never compromises.”
“One favorite would be a rare daybed designed by Jorgen Kastholm and Preben Fabricius in 1965. I’ve used them in front of fireplaces to finish off a seating group. You can feel the soul of the piece when you find one with its original leather and a beautiful patina.”
George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg
Co-founders of design firm Yabu Pushelberg, famous for their retail, home, restaurant, and hospitality design around the world.
“The ‘Satellite’ Mirror By Eileen Gray: It’s so beautiful in its simplicity, yet its presence alludes to far more complexity: the large nickel-finished mirror reflects the smaller, articulating task lamp. The overall impression is that of a moon (lamp) orbiting a planet (mirror).”
Curator, Design & Architecture at M+, a new museum of visual culture opening in Hong Kong in 2018.
“Sergio Rodrigues’s Sheriff (or Poltrona Mole) chair, which brought the casual effortlessness, and material richness, of Brazil to modern furniture design.”
Journalist, curator and co-founder of Sight Unseen, an online design magazine.
“Hans Wegner’s moon lander–esque Flag Halyard chair is hardly a classic in the traditional sense—it’s not for everyone, it goes with almost nothing, and it’s never been ubiquitous or widely loved. But whenever I try to think of a time-tested design by an iconic designer that I covet more, I can’t. To me it’s a must-have because it’s a statement piece with a strong aesthetic voice yet it’s the most comfortable and lovable piece of furniture I could ever imagine. Sitting down in it, particularly with its sheepskin intact, is like getting a hug from your mom.”
“We feel it’s important to live with a style that reflects your personality. One of the risks of social media is the ubiquity of design—it’s difficult to have an original thought for very long. The beauty of finding a special treasure, regardless of its market value, is that it’s yours and no one else will have it. We love helping our clients discover items that reflect their personalities as well as helping them mix a variety of pieces, periods, and pedigrees to achieve a style that is strictly their own.”
Interior designer and dealer who has recently opened Studiolo, a gallery of his rare and unique finds in LA.
“For 35 years, whether with art, furniture, or objects of any stripe, my most important axiom was to pursue not only the authentic and the original, but only the very best examples available from their creators. There is nothing sadder than a collection of second-rate works even if from first-rate makers.”
A few recommended investment pieces are: “A Pierre Guariche tubular metal and canvas ‘Prefacto’ chair, 1951. An important collector’s piece from one of the great masters.”
“A unique, hand-carded cotton and wool contemporary tapestry, The Slippery Feel of Inevitability, 2016 by Misha Kahn. This piece is entirely original, on the cutting edge of contemporary design.”
“A most important and rare bamboo chair by Janine Abraham and Dirk Van Rol.”
Design writer, consultant, and curator of the London Design Festival. Editor of the London Design Guide.
“All too often, we associate classics with the 20th-century Modernist movement. Worthy as they are, I’d opt for something more recent: The Low Pad chair by Jasper Morrison, designed in 1999 and produced by Cappellini in Italy. For me, this lounge chair (and its more upright High Pad cousin) was an instant classic when it was released—refined and comfortable in form, elegant in profile, alluring in silhouette. A classic should stand the test of time and this design has done so, not dating a bit since its release. I live with one and not a day goes by without me admiring the complexity imbued in its apparent simplicity.”
Founder & CEO of Hem.
“I would have to choose an Alexander Calder mobile. It’s a totally unique interior product typology that he invented and there’s no replicating such an original point of view. In terms of investing in such a classic, they sell for millions. If I could have one, I would.”
Co-founder of Airbnb.
“My design classic would be the LCW Chair by Charles and Ray Eames which has to be one of the most iconic furniture pieces of the 20th-century. We studied their work in school, but their innovation and insight has traveled way beyond the classroom for me. Their approach to each design was what made them so successful, and I have found the same lessons apply to my life. When designing, Ray and Charles Eames focused their attention on “where the materials meet”; for instance, how the wooden legs of a chair connect to the seat. These are the points of greatest tension and where the most support is needed. I’ve taken this inspiration and applied it to my role at Airbnb—focusing my attention on where different disciplines, departments, and functions meet.”
Design Director at MAP, a London-based industrial design firm.
“Achille Castiglioni’s ‘spoon for jars’ designed in 1962 as a promotional object for Kraft. It has an asymmetrical shape designed for getting the last bits of mayonnaise, jam, or hazelnut spread from the side and bottom of a jar. It was reissued in 1997 by Alessi and I was also given one by Ross Lovegrove when I worked at his studio in the late 90s. I still use it today with my kids for Nutella. I love the fact that you have to figure out the purpose of the unusual shape. It’s a great piece of design that is beautiful, functional, affordable, and has a lovely sustainability edge (using the last bits of the hazelnut spread in the jar). It also served as inspiration for our Tritensil for Fortnum & Mason.”
Interior designer whose showroom and shop, Palevsky, has recently opened in LA.
“In almost every office project I work on, I encourage my clients to purchase an Eames Time-Life Executive Chair. It a classic piece that is streamlined in its design, but more importantly, ergonomically unrivaled in the market place. Typically, I will try to track down a vintage original one that we can re-upholster, but even the new, licensed version is fantastic because you can select vibrant leather colors for a bit of playfulness in your space. This chair is ideal for so many reasons, but I find that one of the main reasons clients love it is because it is big enough for a larger man but still comfortable for a petite woman.”
Mat Sanders and Brandon Quattrone
Co-founders of Consort, an LA-based interior design firm.
“Our favorite classic piece of design furniture is the armchair by architect Pierre Jeanneret. The chair’s distinctive profile is rudimentary yet elegant and has truly become an iconic piece. It’s a classic must-have with a design that is timeless and goes with anything. Full of rich history, Jeanneret’s chairs have resurfaced as a bit of a trend proving that sometimes the best design is the most simple.”
“I do have both original vintage pieces and also current authorized reproductions …I’d say I value all the Knoll furniture my husband and I came upon over 15 years ago that furnished our first apartment together and that we continue to love! We followed a tip about an IBM office built in the 60’s in Fishkill closing and all of the furniture gems landing at a vintage store at very low prices. We rented a van for the day with friends and stuffed it with everything we could fit, including Knoll credenzas and coffee tables by Florence Knoll, to be specific.
On the one hand, I understand why an original design that is too expensive for most people can inspire a lower-priced knockoff to be made to satisfy desire. It actually seems quite natural from a certain perspective. But through spreading awareness, if consumers are on a budget, it is great to introduce them to affordable authentic work, either vintage or contemporary. They can feel good supporting original ideas, innovation, creativity, and manufacturing. I launched the DIY series partly as an alternate solution for this very conundrum!”